Following the passage of the Dawes Act in 1887, which forced Plains Indians to give up communal ways of life for individual family farms, many American Indians struggled to adapt to the new ways of life being dictated to them. But while many suffered under the federal government’s attempt to exorcise Indian customs and beliefs some, like Edward Goodbird, a member of the Hidatsa tribe in North Dakota, embraced the new order. In this excerpt from his autobiography, Goodbird described the often subtle ways in which Indians managed to retain small aspects of their culture.
The time came when we had to forsake our village at Like-a-fish-hook Bend, for the government wanted the Indians to become farmers. “You should take allotments,” our agent would say. “The big game is being killed off, and you must plant bigger fields or starve. The government will give you plows and cattle.”
All knew that the agent’s words were true, and little by little our village was broken up. In the summer of my sixteenth year nearly a third of my tribe left to take up allotments.
We had plenty of land; our reservation was twice the size of Rhode Island, and our united tribes, with the Rees who joined us, were less than thirteen hundred souls. Most of the Indians chose allotments along the Missouri, where the soil was good and drinking water easy to get. Unallotted lands were to be sold and the money given to the three tribes.
Forty miles above our village, the Missouri makes a wide bend around a point called Independence Hill, and here my father and several of his relatives chose their allotments. The bend enclosed a wide strip of meadow land, offering hay for our horses. The soil along the river was rich and in the bottom stood a thick growth of timber.
My father left the village, with my mother and me, in June. He had a wagon, given him by the agent; this he unbolted and took over the river piece by piece, in a bull boat; our horses swam.
We camped at Independence in a tepee, while we busied ourselves building a cabin. My father cut the logs; they were notched at the ends, to lock into one another at the corners. A heavier log, a foot in thickness, made the ridge pole. The roof was of willows and grass, covered with sods.
Cracks between the logs were plastered with clay, mixed with short grass. The floor was of earth, but we had a stove.
We were a month putting up our cabin.
Though my father’s coming to Independence was step toward civilization, it had one ill effect: it removed me from the good influences of the mission school, so that for a time I fell back into Indian ways. Winter, also, was not far off; the season was too late for us to plant corn, and the rations issued to us every two weeks rarely lasted more than two or three days. To keep our family in meat, I turned hunter.
There were no buffaloes on the reservation, but blacktailed deer were plentiful, and in the hills were a good many antelopes. I had a Winchester rifle, a 40.60 caliber, and I was a good shot.
To hunt deer, I arose before daylight and went to the woods along the Missouri. Deer feed much at night, and as evening came on, they would leave the thick underbrush by the river and go into the hills to browse on the rich prairie grasses. I would creep along the edge of the woods, rifle in hand, ready to shoot any that I saw coming in from the feeding grounds.
I was careful to keep on the leeward side of the game; a deer running up wind will scent an Indian as quickly as a buffalo.
I loved to hunt, and although a mere boy, I was one of the quickest shots in my tribe. I remember that one morning I was coming around a clump of bushes when I saw a doe and buck ahead, just entering the thicket. I fired, hardly glancing at the sights; I saw the buck fall, but when I ran up I found the doe lying beside him, killed by the same bullet.
Independence was a wild spot. The hill from which the place took its name had been a favorite fasting place for young men who sought visions; at its foot, under a steep bank, swept the Missouri, full of dangerous whirlpools. Such spots, lonely and wild, we Indians thought were haunts of the spirits.
Once, when I was a small boy, my father took me to see the Sun dance. A man named Turtle-no-head was suspended from a post in a booth, and dancing around it. Turtle-no-head’s hands were behind him, and he strained at the rope as he danced. Women were crying, “A-la-la-la-la-la!”Old men were calling out, “Good; Turtle-no-head is a man. One should be willing to suffer to find his god; then he will strike many enemies and win honors!”
I was much stirred by what I saw, and by the old men’s words.
“Father,” I said, “when I get big, I am going to suffer and seek a vision, like Turtle-no-head!”
“Good!” said my father, laughing.
At Independence, I thought of this vow made years before. One day, I said to my father, “I want you to suspend me from the high bank, over the Missouri.”
When evening came, my father stripped me to my clout and moccasins, and helped me paint my body with white clay. He called a man named Crow, and they took me to the bank, over the Missouri. My father fastened me to the rope, and I swung myself over the bank, hanging with my weight upon the rope. “Suffer as long as you can” called my father, and left me.
I did not feel much pain, but I became greatly wearied from the strain upon my back and thighs. Toward morning I could stand it no longer. I drew myself up on the bank, and went home and to bed; and I slept so soundly that no dream came from the spirits.
A year later, I again sought a vision. This time my father took me to a high hill, a mile or two from the river. He drove a post into the ground, fastened me to it, as before, and left me, just at nightfall.
I threw myself back upon the rope and danced around the post, hoping to fall into a swoon and see a vision.
It was autumn, and a light snow was falling; the cold flakes on my bare shoulders made me shiver till my teeth chattered. The night was black as pitch. A coyote howled. I was so lonely that I wished a ghost would sit on the post and talk with me, though I was dreadfully afraid of ghosts, especially at night. I grew so cold that my knees knocked together.
About two o’clock in the morning, I untied the rope and went home. For an hour I felt sick, but I soon fell into a sleep, again dreamless.
I was eating my breakfast when my father came in. “I have seen no vision, father,” I told him; he said nothing.
The next year the government forbade the Indians to torture themselves when they fasted. My father was quite vexed. “The government does wrong to forbid us to suffer for our gods!” he said. But I was rather glad. “The Indian’s way is hard,” I thought. “The white man’s road is easier!” And I thought again of the mission school.
Other things drew my thoughts to civilized ways. Our agent issued to every Indian family having an allotment, a plow, and wheat, flax, and oats, for seeding. My father and I broke land near our cabin, and in the spring seeded it down.
We had a fair harvest in the fall. Threshing was done on the agency machine, and, having sacked our grain, my father and I hauled it, in four trips, to Hebron, eighty miles away. Our flax we sold for seventy-five cents, our wheat for sixty cents, and our oats for twenty-five cents a bushel. Our four loads brought us about eighty dollars.
I became greatly interested in farming. There was good soil on our allotment along the river, although our fields sometimes suffered from drought; away from the river, much of our land was stony, fit only for grazing.
My parents had been at Independence eight years, when one day the agent sent for me. I went to his office.
“I hear you have become a good farmer,” he said, as I came in. “I want to appoint you assistant to our agency farmer. Your district will include all allotments west of the Missouri between the little Missouri and Independence. I will pay you three hundred dollars a year. Will you accept?”
“I will try what I can do,” I answered.
“Good,” said the Major. “Now for your orders! You are to measure off for every able-bodied Indian, ten acres of ground to be plowed and seeded. If an Indian is lazy and will not attend to his plowing, report him to me and I will send a policeman. In the fall, you are to see that every family puts up two tons of hay for each horse or steer owned by it.”
I did not know what an acre was. “It is a piece of ground,” the agent explained, “ten rods wide and sixteen rods long.”From this I was able to compute pretty well how much ten acres should be; but I am not sure that all the plots I measured were of the same size.
I began my new duties at once, and at every cabin in my district, I measured off a ten-acre plot and explained the agent’s orders. Not a few of the Indians had done some plowing at Like-a-fish-hook village, and all were willing to learn. Once a month, I took a blacksmith around to inspect the Indians' plows.
Rains were abundant that summer, and the Indians had a good crop. Some families harvested a hundred bushels of wheat from a ten-acre field; others, seventy-five bushels; and some had also planted oats.
The government began to issue cattle in payment of lands sold for us. The first issue was one cow to each family, and the agent ordered me to see that every family built a barn.
These barns were put up without planks or nails. A description of my own will show what they were like; it rested on a frame of four forked posts, with stringers laid in the forks; puncheons, or split logs, were leaned against the stringers for walls; rough-cut rafters supported a roofing of willows and dry grass, earthed over with sods.
More cattle were issued to us until we had a considerable herd at Independence. The cattle were let run at large, but each steer or cow was branded by its owner. Calves ran with their mothers until fall; the herd was then corralled and each calf was branded with its mother’s brand. My own brand was the letters SU on the right shoulder.
Herders guarded our cattle during the calving season; we paid them ten cents for every head of stock herded through the summer months.
I had been assistant farmer six years and our herd had grown to about four hundred head, when Bird Bear and Skunk, our two herders, reported that some of our cattle had strayed. “We have searched the coulees and thickets, but cannot find them,” they said. Branding time came; we corralled the herd and found about fifty head missing.
We now suspected that our cattle had been stolen. Cattle thieves, we knew, were in the country; they had broken into a corral one night, on a ranch not far from Independence and killed a cowboy named Long John.
Winter had passed, when the agent called me one day into his office. “Goodbird,” he said, “I want you to take out a party of our agency police and find those thieves who stole your cattle. Start at once!”
I got my party together, eight in all; Hollis Montclair, my boyhood chum; Frank White Calf, Crow Bull, Sam Jones, White Owl, Little Wolf, No Bear, and myself. Only Hollis and I spoke English.
We started toward the Little Missouri, where we suspected the thieves might be found. I drove a wagon with our provisions and tent; my men were mounted. We reached the Little Missouri before nightfall, and camped.
The next morning, we turned westward; before noon, we crossed a prairie dog village, and shot three or four prairie dogs for dinner. The hair was singed off the carcasses, and they were drawn, and spitted on sticks over the fire. Prairie dogs are not bad eating, especially in the open air, by a good wood fire; I have never become so civilized that I would not rather eat out of doors.
Toward evening we met a cowboy. “How!” I called, as I drew in my team. “Have you seen any stray cattle, with Indian brands, ID, 7 bar, 7, or the like?” And I told him of our missing cattle.
“I know where they are,” said the cowboy. “You will find them on a ranch near Stroud’s post-office; but don’t tell who told you!”
“Have no fear,” I answered.
Stroud’s post-office was further west, near the Montana border; we reached it the third or fourth day out.
We made camp, and after supper, I went in and told Mr. Stroud our errand.
“Yes,” he said, “your cattle are three miles from here, on a ranch owned by Frank Powers; he hired two cowboys to steal them for him.”
The next morning my men and I mounted, and leaving our wagon at Stroud’s, started for Powers' ranch. I was unarmed; the others of my party had their rifles.
We stopped at the cabin of a man named Crockin, to inquire our way. A white man came in; after he had gone out again, I asked Crockin, “Who is that man?”
“He is Frank Powers,” said Crockin.
I turned to my men and said in their own language,“That is the man who stole our cattle.”
Little Wolf drew his cleaning rod. “I am going to give that bad white man a beating,” he cried angrily.
“You will not,” I answered. “We will go into Power’s pasture and round up his cattle; and I will cut out all that I think are ours. If that bad white man comes out and says evil words against me, do nothing. If he shoots at me, kill him quick; but do not you shoot first!”
My men loaded their rifles, and about two o’clock I led them into the pasture. Powers' cattle were all bunched in a big herd; we drove them to a grassy flat, and I began cutting out those that were ours.
Powers saw us and came out, revolver in hand, and two or three white men joined him. He was so angry that he acted like a mad man; he grew red in the face, talked loud, and swore big oaths; but he did not shoot, for he knew my men would kill him.
I cut about twenty-five head out of the herd, all that I found with altered brands on the right shoulder or thigh. Maybe I took some of Powers' cattle by mistake, but I did not care much.
Powers left us after a while. My men rounded up our cattle, and we drove them back to Stroud’s and camped.
After supper, I asked Mr. Stroud to write a letter to our agent, telling him what I had done. “Tomorrow,” I told my men, “we will set out for home. You drive our cattle back to the reservation in short stages, so that they will not sicken with the heat. I will go ahead with Mr. Stroud’s letter.”
I set out before sunrise; at four o’clock I reached Independence, eighty miles away; and at sunset, I was at Elbowoods.
It was Decoration day, and the Indians were having a dance. The agent was sitting in his office with the inspector, from Washington.
“I have found our cattle,” I said; and I gave him Mr. Stroud’s letter.
He read it and handed it to the inspector.
“Report this matter to the United States marshal,”the inspector said to him. "Tell him to have Powers arrested."
Source: Edward Goodbird, as told to Gilbert L. Wilson, Goodbird the Indian, His Story (1914; reprint, St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1985), 55–64.